Noir or Not: A Compelling Compilation

By Art Taylor,
an assistant professor at George Mason University and frequent mystery reviewer.
Wednesday, September 24, 2008


The Classics

Edited by George Pelecanos

Akashic. 321 pp. Paperback, $15.95

Rather than just traveling the same mean streets as the first "D.C. Noir" -- a much-lauded gathering of original tales -- this new anthology of 16 works (stories, novel excerpts and one poem) draws on more than a century of published writings. Stretching from Paul Laurence Dunbar's story "A Council of State" (1900) to the first chapter of Marita Golden's novel "After" (2006), the collection strives for historical comprehensiveness. The older works combine insight into the past with timeless relevance: Dunbar explores behind-the-scenes maneuvering at a political convention, for example, and Ward Just's "Nora" (1971) exposes a female journalist's affair with a young senator with "vice-presidential possibilities."

Like its predecessor, "The Classics" covers a wide geography, from the Lorton Correctional Complex in Virginia to a seedy student apartment in Hyattsville and into several locations dotting the District: Chinatown, Kingman Park, Georgia Avenue, Connecticut Avenue, Shaw. Even Washington National Cathedral, as Richard Wright shows, offers a rich setting for forbidden sexuality and murderous impulses.

A nifty map pinpoints each story's setting with the chalk outline of a body, but that motif and the chronological sequence underscore a certain confusion about the book. Barely half of the stories feature even the threat of violence, much less a corpse for those chalk outlines, and even 50 pages in, readers may be puzzled over what noir actually means here. Does it require violence? Or even crime? One might expect at least the latter, given the genre's roots in hard-boiled detective stories. Noir also suggests a mood, an attitude -- "cynicism, sleaziness, fatalism, and moral ambiguity," as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it -- but none of those qualities individually seems to suffice; sleaze alone does not noir make. Maybe, as with that Supreme Court justice's definition of pornography, you simply know it when you see it: James M. Cain's novel "Double Indemnity," Roman Polanski's film "Chinatown" or even Richard Aleas's novel "Songs of Innocence," published last year. But it's tough to recognize noir in Jean Toomer's "Avey," which is essentially a love story, albeit a melancholic one, or in Langston Hughes's "Trouble With the Angels," about an extra in an all-Negro play who is organizing a strike to protest D.C.'s Jim Crow laws. Is discrimination or disappointment enough to constitute noir?

In his editor's introduction, George Pelecanos seems to anticipate such objections, admitting that these older stories require a broader definition of the genre, with a stress on "its psychological elements, rather than its crime elements," and indeed it's hard to fault a collection offering so many of the finest African American writers from the early 20th century: writers whose works illuminate the "issues of race, ethnicity, politics, [and] class" at the heart of this collection's concerns. Noir or not, this book clearly succeeds there and may help introduce these authors to new audiences. But readers looking for a little murder in the mix might do well to skip ahead to the fourth story, Wright's "The Man Who Killed a Shadow," which oozes noir sensibilities and still nails those themes, with the main character experiencing the white world as "a faint and fearful shadow cast by some object that stood between him and a hidden and powerful sun."

Race, ethnicity and class remain central to other stories. Julian Mayfield's "The Last Days of Duncan Street" finds a group of black kids hyped up to see Joe Louis "knock the living stew out of a big German named Max Schmeling" and prepped to knock some heads themselves, stockpiling knives and baseball bats and "bricks that you could aim at a white boy's head." Larry Neal's "Our Bright Tomorrows" charts campus protests -- and ultimately the campus shutdown -- at Howard University in the wake of the King assassination. And Pelecanos's own contribution, "The Dead Their Eyes Implore Us," pits a Greek immigrant against a Pinkerton spy who has gone underground as a waiter to break up union-organizing efforts at a local restaurant.

Two of the finest stories rely on a collision of cultures. Edward P. Jones's masterful "A Rich Man" follows a womanizing senior citizen's descent into a maelstrom of trouble with a younger generation that he fails, tragically, to understand. Elizabeth Hand's "Wonderwall" captures with visceral immediacy the landscape of Southwest Washington in the 1970s as experienced by artsy college students from suburban Maryland: "gunshots, sirens, the faint bass throb from funk bands at the Washington Coliseum, the ceaseless boom and echo of trains uncoupling in the railyards that extended from Union Station."

Among straight-out crime tales, an excerpt from Ross Thomas's novel "Cast a Yellow Shadow" proves a model of suspense, with a killer cliffhanger. The only disappointment? The novel is currently out of print, leaving readers potentially stranded about what happens next. Perhaps the most noirish of noir stories ultimately bring us face to face with an inescapable bleakness, a grim futility. Benjamin M. Schutz's exceptional "Christmas in Dodge City," for example, draws readers progressively deeper into darkness as its police detective tries to help a "junkie whore" save her fourth -- and now sole surviving -- son from a gang of killers.

But as both author and editor, Pelecanos often tempers grittiness with some glimmer of optimism. Many stories here end with uplift: trouble averted, equilibrium restored. A harrowing night provides that first chapter of Golden's "After," but the excerpt's closing image -- indeed the closing image of the collection -- proves not just hopeful but already redemptive. Dark as many of these stories are, there's light in them yet, and it's the layering of the two that helps the collection to dazzle.

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